Cognitive dissonance: one of the causes of risk blindness

Written by Orly Polak

I justify your wrongdoings

Leaders have a strong influence on the risk blindness of their employees. If their practice of safety leadership is not perceived by their workforce as being right, then this may lead to the latter being less aware – and thus less prone to recognizing dangers. Such reduced awareness is the consequence of what psychology experts call cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the term for mental stress or discomfort, which materializes when someone is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values. Once cognitive dissonance arises, people get the urge to decrease this dissonance through adapting their beliefs or behavior, or by justifying them. And this is exactly the case when it comes down to recognizing risks and maintaining strong safety awareness.

Employees want to be able to trust their organization when it comes to safety. If the company and its management dont perform as well in this field as the employee would like to, the latter may start justifying this shortage. During interviews, we have heard employees say: If it were really that dangerous, my employer would have never let me work in these conditions or if this task was really that dangerous, my organization would have taken stricter measures. Consequently, a negative spiral starts to form with regard to the safety culture caused by the interaction between organization, management and employees. Therefore, saying that 90% of all incidents are caused by human behavior, does not mean that the organization and management dont play their parts in this. There is a correlation between incidents caused by routine and the way organizations and management cope with safety, as demonstrated by several studies.

It almost seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the organization and its leaders are the biggest determinants of the way in which employees look at risks; and consequently this way of perceiving being the biggest bottle neck in safety acts. But how can you even begin to determine the degree of risk awareness of employees, and the potential of a company to improve it?

It starts with measuring employees perception of the way their organization and leaders go about safety. In safety culture studies, this seems to be a hard method. As stated earlier, employees want to have trust in their leaders, but it remains a question if that really is the case. In literature, the collection of these perceptions is called the safety climate. Several studies show that there is a strong correlation between safety climate and safety performance. One of the obvious questions is: How can this safety climate be improved? And heres the twist in this story: Safety climate can be improved by (safe) leadership, among others. An important aim is to have employees trust their leaders. So no fake trust, but to truly trust them. Employees need to get the sense that their leaders are committed to their health and that they value safety more than anything else. To realize that, leaders should get the organizations support to truly make safety its number-one priority.

Of course, theres a tension. Many priorities are often placed on different levels of importance or urgency, and not everyone pays the same amount of attention to every priority. For instance, when its a busy time, production may be seen as more important than safety. This is also exactly what we hear during our interviews: Safety is important, but in busy times or stress, it is too often seen as less important than it should be. If you really want your leaders to perform safety leadership in the right way, then its not enough to teach them how to do that, but also give them the right means (like time) by making safety just as important as production and efficiency.

Back to the individual leader: How do you grow trust? Well, leaders can do several things. Firstly, it is important that they realize what their tasks and responsibilities are. They should live up to the employees expectations and act according to the employees values and standards. So, its more than just acting consistently. Employees should believe that management really wants the best for them, and that safety goes above everything. An important aspect in achievingthis is communication. Prioritize communication as much as you prioritize safety: in every speech, during every feedback session and during every conversation with your employees. Always let them know what your priorities are and what they can expect from you as a leader regarding a safe working environment. Reward the employees who make safe choices, and instantly correct those, spotted to be working in an unsafe manner. Appreciate reports of unsafe situations. Take the time and effort to carefully listen to those reports. Thank your employees for it. Afterwards, let them know what you did with their feedback.

Safety leadership is being transparent in your priorities, being clear, being visible and setting the right example. It is about consistently putting safety as the number-one priority, and to always being open to improvements. A safe leader understands first before he is being understood and acts according to expectations. Only if a leader does this, will the employees be able to reflect on their own behaviors; unsafe situations will not be rationalized and it will foster a culture where employees and leaders help each other in improving the safety performance of their organization.